Monthly Archives: February 2012
Here in Australia, the weather tends to connive with the idea that Lent is a time of self-denial and penance. Or at least that’s true in Melbourne, where I live, and in Canberra, my home town. The deciduous trees seem to be joining in a communal ascetical practice as they begin to lose their leaves. Their act of letting go seems to invite parallel acts of shedding for us during Lent: we too are invited to be stripped of selfishness and pride as we enter into this period of preparation for Easter.
This invitation to self-denial and ascetical practices often seem to some people to capture what is worst about Christianity, and perhaps about Catholicism in particular. It seems to convey all of the gloomiest stereotypes about Christians: as a pleasure-depriving, joyless, and even masochistic people. But is that what Lent, and for that matter Christianity, is really all about?
Let’s look to the liturgy to help us get a better handle on Lent. In the old translation of the preface for Lent we used to say,
Each year you give us this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery with mind and heart renewed.
In the new translation which we will use for the first time this year it says:
For each year by your gracious gift your faithful await the sacred paschal feasts with the joy of minds made pure, so that, more eagerly intent on prayer and on the works of charity, and participating in the mysteries by which they have been reborn, they may be led to the fullness of grace you bestow on your sons and daughters.
The intended meaning in both translations is the same: Lent is a joyful time. Of course, the Liturgy of the Word during Lent will also call us to fasting, to alms-giving, to prayer, to reflect upon the temptations of Jesus, to deny ourselves and take up our cross… So which is it? Is Lent a season of self-denial or a time of joy?
The answer of course, is both.
Lent is most definitely a time of self-denial. But it shouldn’t be a case of simply going without something we like for forty days as a kind of endurance test of our wills. The practices of self-denial that we adopt during this time are actually to do with expressing who or what is really master of our lives. And who or what is master of our lives is expressed in and through our bodies, which is why Lent is irreducibly physical and tangible.
When we deny ourselves some food during Lent, we are reminding ourselves that there is more to life than ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’. When we give alms to the poor during Lent we remind ourselves that the acquisition of wealth is not the goal of our lives. When we decide to devote extra effort to refraining from gossip or detraction of others, and try to speak more edifyingly of others, or when we fast from always having control of the airwaves around us, we are concretely reminding ourselves that we are not the centre of the universe, that our lives are not about us.
I’m not being dualistic or anti-body here. We don’t treat our bodies as if they are slaves that must be whipped into shape, or machines that we must master. If you want that, watch The Biggest Loser. What we are doing is recognising that it is in and through our body that we express our deepest commitments: and to commit to the love of God and of others is not possible if our bodily actions are always directed towards ourselves.
Self-denial will usually cost us something, and it can even be painful at some level. That’s not because we should be damaging our health, but because we often experience withdrawal symptoms from whatever we are trying to cut out from our lives. The little masters that often have hold of our lives do not give up too easily: it can be very painful to be silent when you would rather hog the conversation, to say no to a drink because you feel you need it to relax or unwind, or to pass up on a movie and give the price of the ticket to Project Compassion.
What we begin to discover as we practice these ascetical disciplines is the emergence of true joy. Joy is found in the love of God and of others, which is why prayer and almsgiving are as important a part of Lent as fasting and self-denial. The acts of self-denial are for joy.
The word ‘Lent’ actually means ‘Spring-time’. But maybe we southern hemisphere-dwellers have the advantage here. Which brings me back to the Autumn leaves. Because before they fall from the trees they change colours, from a fairly uniform green to the most dazzling array of reds, oranges, purples and rich brown shades, with many variations in between. The streets of Melbourne and Canberra are breathtakingly beautiful during Lent. The leaves are dying of course, even as they change colour. But the tree is still very much alive. Something is dying during Lent. But that’s so something new can be born. And even the process of dying is beautiful for those with eyes to see.
Over my summer holidays I watched Series 6 of ‘Bones’. The gooey flesh dropping off the skeletons is pretty creepy, but I’m a sucker for a whodunnit and it isn’t usually too tricky to guess the murderer. I’ve also got to confess that it’s the characters that keep me coming back for more: I enjoy the banter between the forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel), and her FBI partner Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz). The supporting cast is fun too, especially the ‘squint squad’: the lab interns that provide much of the comic amusement in the show.
I think that Brennan’s character is particularly interesting. Bones is a scientist, and she sees the world solely through the lens of her empirical worldview. She thinks that feelings are only chemical emissions in the brain, and that relationships can be completely explained by the cultural constructs of mating rituals and inter-tribal dynamics. She ridicules religious faith as magic and superstition. And while she frequently misses the pop culture references from her colleagues and friends, she is also often oblivious to the other social dynamics that most of us take for granted. This provides part of the humour of the show, and it has been fun to watch her learning from Booth even as she continues to dismiss his intuitive hunches.
She is also dismissive of the insights of Dr Sweets, the psychologist on the team. And it’s through Sweets that we are given a psychological explanation for Brennan’s behaviour. Sweets diagnoses that Bones has retreated into a hyper-scientific rationalism as a protective mechanism against the trauma of being abandoned as a child by her parents, which also serves as a safeguard against her ongoing fear that someone else that she loves will hurt her again by leaving.
There’s a rich irony in the fact that while Bones is an anthropologist, she often doesn’t understand real human beings. She is often depicted alone at the lab staring at human remains where she is clearly more comfortable. And whether Dr Sweets has accurately diagnosed the cause of her troubles or not, it’s clear that the principal issue is that Bones has a myopic vision of the human person. By believing that all human interactions can be explained by biological processes and the insights of (a somewhat outdated) cultural anthropology she has found an explanation of human behaviour that allows her to retain the illusion of control. As a consequence she can not only misunderstand what is going on around her, but she maintains an attitude of superiority over others who do not have her intellectual capacity.
But it all comes unstuck in Series 6 because Bones has realised that she is in love with Booth, and for most of the series he is in love with someone else. And she has stopped explaining that in terms of biological necessity, evolutionary survival of the species or the social dynamics of the tribe. She’s in love, and she’s having to learn some new categories for understanding her emotions and desires.
One of the central metaphors in the Gospels for coming to faith is of the blind receiving their sight. Brennan is not having a religious conversion in Series 6, but she is gradually coming to discover that her empirical worldview has left her blind to some of the deeper realities of life. In some ways she is experiencing an intellectual conversion to a richer, fuller understanding of what it is to be human. This intellectual conversion does not mean that Bones needs to completely jettison her commitment to scientific endeavour. It is only the new atheists and the Christian fundamentalists who require us to completely choose one side or another in the so-called conflict between science and religion. What Bones does need to acknowledge for her intellectual conversion to be complete is the limits of scientific knowledge, and that an all-embracing scientism that excludes the place of faith and love cannot do justice to the mystery of being human.
And (if she wasn’t a character on a prime time tv show), such an insight could also be the precursor to a conversion of heart. As Pascal put it, the heart has its own reasons that reason does not know, and so by acknowledging that this is true Brennan is one step closer to discovering that it is only in the God revealed in Jesus Christ that we can truly be anthropologists – people who are discovering in and through Christ what it is to be truly human. At the end of Series 6 we learn that Bones is pregnant. If the show were real life we might say that here is a providential opportunity for Bones’ conversion to continue.